By Warren Rojas
The name above the entryway hasn’t launched a game-clinching spiral since the last Reagan administration. And the heavily trafficked Old Town Alexandria outpost is, in actuality, a spin-off rather than the original stomping ground of the aforementioned NFL great.
But none of that has stopped the crush of loyalists that blitzes Theismann’s on a regular basis.
No ordinary sports bar—there are no coeds in booty shorts hawking overpriced wings or meathead bros pushing test tubes of experimental liquor—Theismann’s continues to thrive some 40 years after former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann joined the hospitality game.
The now-sportscaster tackled his first neighborhood venture in 1975, putting down roots near Bailey’s Crossroads. According to general manager Jordan Willis, the original restaurant performed so well (to wit, that flagship location is now a discount mattress shop) that a decade later Theismann approved an expansion into Alexandria.
On any given night, the L-shaped bar at the heart of the establishment may be overrun by beer-sipping lady friends totally oblivious to the wall-to-wall sports coverage sprayed across a dozen big-screen TVs, gray-haired business execs catching up with contacts over a drink (or four) or lovey-dovey millennials splitting appetizers. Multigenerational groups (including dads and sons spending quality time, grandparents joining their extended family for a meal and single moms with rambunctious school kids in tow) tend to lay claim to the main dining room and breezy patio.
Everywhere you look, conversations flow freely. Smiles come easy. And no one seems to have a care in the world.
Which is, undoubtedly, part of this place’s irrefutable charm.
“We happily serve thousands of families, reunions, weddings, conference-goers and vacationers,” Willis says of a wildly diverse clientele that also includes local sports personalities such as Washington Nationals’ star Bryce Harper and Redskins head coach Jay Gruden.
Executive chef Louis “Bambino” Aguirre has apparently been calling the plays in the kitchen since 1992. The carte largely embraces Southern cuisine but also seems to bounce around (seafood fra diavolo, anyone?) quite a bit.
Lamb lollipops are par for the course (adequately meaty, fairly juicy). A companion salad proved irresistible, yielding forkfuls of leafy greens bolstered by mint-spiked vinaigrette, crumbles of salty feta and cherry tomatoes that burst like water balloons, all wrapped in shaved cucumber.
A well-composed flatbread unites zesty Andouille sausage, dulcet Spanish onions and crisp green peppers atop a blanket of mellow mozzarella.
Vegetables and cheese again carry the day in a plate depositing skewers of grilled halloumi (satisfying chew with just a hint of smoke) and flame-licked peppers atop terrifically nutty grains of pesto-soaked rice.
Blackened catfish hit its marks; I loved the herb-rubbed crust and delicate flesh. The supporting cast, not so much. Rather than simmer the kidney beans till nearly disintegrated or cream them with coconut milk a la traditional beans and rice, the kitchen dumped what amounted to vegetable stew (whole beans, chunks of tomato and chopped celery were all plainly visible) over white rice and called it a day.
The house lasagna, which Willis maintains has been on the menu since day one, is textbook comfort food. There’s savory ground beef saturated in robust tomato ragout. Competing strata of stretchy melted provolone, creamy ricotta and salty shredded Parmesan duel for most enticing dairy product. The marinara that moistens every bite lavishes the taste buds in sautéed onions, garlic and peppers.
There’s no artful deconstruction or ethereal foams to contend with. Just good old-fashioned pasta, hearty sauce, loads of cheese and aromatic slices of garlic bread. (Mangia!)
The grilled banana bread is a favored send-off. The tropically inspired centerpiece is dense and moist, sharing more in common with bread pudding than traditional cake. Praline ice cream amps up the crunch factor while ribbons of salted caramel sauce sweeten the entire deal.
As for the big man, he’s always around somewhere. “Joe … visits frequently and enjoys talking with patrons and staff,” Willis says.
Joe Theismann’s Restaurant
Old Dominion Brewing Company originally created the Broken Leg Lager, a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the former quarterback’s career-ending injury.
Appetizers: $7.50-$13; Entrees: $13-$36
Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday
1800 Diagonal Road, Alexandria